Cross functional teams

I guess we can all agree that any task that needs to be carried out requires an adequate skill set in order to be completed. Should the task be more complex or less trivial, a broader set of skills or a more proficient person carrying it out is needed. When I look at software development I see a mix of non triviality and complexity, since it’s usually a long series of pretty difficult tasks. These characteristics and the creative aspect that comes from someone finding my work useful is what attracts me to the software business. In addition to that I find it rewarding and interesting to work with others. My guess is that this is what makes people group together and form teams when they develop large software systems and applications.

In order to address all challenges and aspects of software development these teams usually consists of several persons. Our wish to do a proper job leads us to this. Who can blame us, there’s plenty to consider — right? We need to analyze the business case, create a usable system and store data just to mention a few important things. These multi skilled teams are often called cross functional, referring to the combination of skills that can be put to use by the group.

A non linear challenge

However, these cross functional teams comes at a price: interaction challenges. The more people there are, the more difficult communication becomes. This communication challenge is very closely related to the number of relations in a group, which is a non-linear function by the way. It can be expressed as: f(n) = n * (n – 1) / 2, where n is the number of persons in the group. This function tells us that a group of three people has three unique interpersonal relations: 3 = 3 * (3 – 1) / 2. A group of 4 has 6 relations, whereas a group of 5 has 10, and it quickly adds up. A ten people team has no less than 45 unique relations between its team members. But the number of relations isn’t our only challenge, lets dig a bit deeper.

Distortion and noise

Interaction gets complicated really fast, partly because people continuously need to digest new information, discuss new ideas and act on them respectively. And partly because the interpersonal relations themselves require attention. The function above doesn’t show information distortion like different views, different opinions or different backgrounds. Nor does it effectively convey how communication ‘noise’ like stress, different work hours or multi tasking affects the work.

Nevertheless, they both matter and they have a big impact on our communication.

So, how should we handle all these distorted, noisy paths of communication and interaction, that seems to grows uncontrollably as we add people to our teams?

Self organization and leadership

I’ve been part of a multitude of different groups and teams. Every single one of them, especially the ones where we actually completed something there was leadership..If the task was even remotely creative I’m arguing that the amount of leadership was higher.

Suppose you were a fly on the wall and could observe all my previous doings in all those different situations. When you sit on a wall for a moment, you can’t see titles, wouldn’t know about formalities nor culture. So what would you see? Well, as a fly you would see people, engaging in several different activities, this is what flies does all day so they’re pretty good at it. You’d probably see some actions that looks like they lead to something else, while some doesn’t seem to have any effect at all. But all you see is interaction between people. Would you still be able to tell if I was the leader? Someone else? I think you could — but how?

I’ve found that the activity part is crucial, the actions is what makes an individual a leader for a brief moment, not their title or label. And this is why I argue that it has to be easy to engage in any activity. Then the probability dramatically increases that the desired behavior emerges and then — leadership can be distributed. I want shared leadership and emergent behavior because I see them as the base for self organization.

What activities then?

The base, especially the shared leadership part, isn’t possible if someone in a group is held back by something or someone. Let’s see why.

Back in 2007 I attended Esther Derby’s and Diana Larsen’s excellent workshop — ‘Secrets Of Agile Teamwork’, where one of the exercises focused on leadership activities. After the exercise we discussed what we just did, our actions, how we interacted and in particular the activities that stood and out and made people leaders or enabled leading. That was a real eye opener for me and it made me realize that I want to focus on the activities we engage in.

Some of the activities Esther and Diana pointed out were:

  • Instructing
  • Following
  • Peacemaking
  • Coordinating
  • Monitoring
  • Influencing
  • Promoting
  • Criticizing
  • Reviewing
  • Commenting

When I saw these the first time I found some a lot more obvious that others. What do you think?

An overlooked dimension

I’ve used this exercise as a reference and reflected over other situations over the years and many other groups I’ve been a part of. Repeatedly I’ve come back to how every difficult situation seemed to lack an important piece. All the problems seemed to stem from the same source.

What had held me or my team back was the fact that someone couldn’t, wouldn’t or didn’t to step forward and engage in some important [leading] activity. This lead me to believe that every team needs to be cross functional in at least two dimensions; technically and interactively. The former is the ability to execute a task and is what we usually focus on when constructing a team. The latter is how you can enable others trying to complete that same task and we need to be equally strong here. We need people that are comfortable with; instructing, following, promoting etc.

A simple example

During the exercise in the ‘Secrets …’-workshop described above, I had a disagreement with someone. We had a lengthy dialog during which we failed to realize that we were about to spend a disproportionate amount of time on a simple matter, until someone pointed that out by simply stating: ‘You seem to disagree’ (commenting & peacemaking). We couldn’t spot that ourselves, but that small interruption snapped us out of discussion mode and turned us to reflection instead. We could then easily see that this question was best answered by a third person, so we turned to them for their opinion and the matter was solved in seconds.

Commenting and peacemaking — simple and really powerful.

Another simple but hard to do example

A few years ago I found following really hard as I felt I had to ‘lead’ in order to be in control. Following is now my current favorite activity, even though I still have problems with it on occasions. I’m not totally over trying to control others, but I practice every day by letting other people coordinate, promote or instruct me. Following more has gradually helped me get used to not being in control and I don’t feel I have to lead to the same extent. Nowadays I pause more often when I talk, pause when I show others how I do things and wait for reactions when I make a comment. 5 seconds is usually enough but that still feels like an eternity sometimes.

I will keep experimenting with following because I’m convinced other crucial behavior depends on it and won’t emerge unless there’s room for other peoples actions and thoughts. And if I lead all the time, the groups I’m a part of might not learn as much and more importantly, I won’t learn at the same pace because I wouldn’t have any time to reflect and see what my own actions lead to.


About Ola Ellnestam

Agile Coach, Systems developer, Agile Practitioner and father of three.

2 responses »

  1. Corinna says:

    Thanks for your insight! I’m also trying to follow more. Not as easy as it seems, I’m so impatient…

    • Ola Ellnestam says:

      I am glad to hear you enjoyed reading about my experiences.

      As a fairly inpatient individual I totally get what you mean. Holding your breath and staying silent for a few extra seconds can be really rewarding though 😀

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